On rage and CBC’s female-centred Western drama, Strange Empire

Blog / Tuesday, November 18th, 2014

Last night, I was catching up on CBC’s new hour-long Western drama set on the border between Montana and Alberta in the 1860s. I’m not normally a fan of the Western genre, but the show features compelling female characters – in fact, it centres on the women and their struggles for survival after the men were all murdered in their town – and one of my favourite people is playing a recurring character as the Marshall. Anyway, 4 episodes in, I tweeted this:

Strange Empire

Looking back, I didn’t think I was being clear enough about what my rage was while watching. In an interview, the show’s creator, Laurie Finstad-Knizhnik explained that the show’s premise was about “the history of the people who were actually in that part of the west — the Métis and natives and Chinese and black people and women, of course”. The Western genre has always been considered to be masculine, with violence and racial tensions always bubbling on the verge of explosion, often solved with some sort of a shoot-out, so the fact that this show features strong female characters, and has a female creator is compelling in itself.

But my rage wasn’t just about how women were treated in the harsh environment. The main characters came together because abled men were killed, their murders blamed on “savages” so that the women would be defenseless when the town’s owner/pimp could replace the prostitutes he had recently lost to an epidemic. In the 1860s, women were like properties whose fate often lies at the whim of the men. Not that much different from a lot of places in 2014 then. What bothered me most was the casual talk presented by the town’s doctor (often overshadowed by his brilliant, young socially awkward wife) as he sets about measuring the face of a young Blackfoot girl who had been injured, explaining that the measurements of her nose is what sets them (the First Nations/Native Americans/Aboriginals) apart, and thus inferior. In that moment, even logically knowing that this was set in 1860, I felt like punching him in the face. Because it’s about determining that someone is different based on their looks and their skin colour; it’s about silencing them and condescendingly telling the so-called ‘Other’ that their culture is savagery, therefore they must be taught civility before they can (maybe) be treated as humans. Because, in 2014, some 150 years on, that assumption still hasn’t change. And it’s not just about someone’s skin colour, language or cultural difference – it’s also about where they’re from.

I need to only look at my own experience to remember this rage. For a while now, I’ve been asked to do a follow-up to my post about diversity and Loncon; even to turn it into an academic piece. I’ve always remained non-committal, especially with the academic piece, because as far as I was concerned, I’ve gotten it off my chest and the matter is done. Moving on. But watching Strange Empire made me think about all this again. When I wrote the initial post, it was really to get the things I was being made to feel off my chest, without even thinking twice that it would struck a chord with people who contacted me on Twitter, telling me that they’ve experienced the same things but didn’t feel they have a voice to say otherwise. I was – am – lucky, because I have supportive friends and colleagues in my academic field who raged and commiserated with me, who would spend hours just discussing it with me. And for that, I’m eternally grateful. But it didn’t stop the detractors from questioning the validity of my experience. Why? Because that was not their experience. Or for suggesting that I shouldn’t be so sensitive, that any attempts at diversity, even if they offend, IS surely a good thing. At the end of the day, you know what I hear? I hear: “OK, I get that this is your experience, but are you sure? Because my experience is different, and what you’ve just said disproves my experience”.

Is it important that I’ve disproved your experience? I asked this about fandom policing as well recently. Or is it human nature that the need to ensure that everyone’s experience remains the same, and any dissenting opinion then needs to be curtailed? Which then brings us back full circle, doesn’t it? To the doctor patiently and non-chalantly explaining to his wife that the young woman is a savage because she is physically different, hold different cultural values and thus, inferior. But do you understand the complicated nature of that rage?

In an earlier scene, the main protagonist, Kat Loving (Cara Gee) and Marshall Caleb Mercredi (Tahmoh Penikett) were talking about their mixed background – she a half Métis, and he, half Blackfoot – and not really belonging to either. Mercredi reflected that it’s probably better that Kat has never revealed herself, implying the complication of that in-betweenness. This was later reinforced when Kat, after releasing the captured Blackfoot, was told she can’t go with them back into their community, because while she doesn’t belong in Jamestown (with the violence stemming from racism after she revealed her identity), she doesn’t belong with them either. It’s sad, and it’s a reflection of the complex emotions that’s tied to identity and ethnicity, already tense because of racial politics. And while this certainly speaks very specifically to the positions of First Nations and Native American communities in North America, which I’m not qualified to speak for, it gave me an interesting analogy to further think about my own in-betweenness in the context of  how the West conceptualise “diversity” and at times, for being the token “non-white” person in the room. And I don’t mean for any of this reflection to be negative in any way; that, just with everything else, there is always a complex story that wasn’t given voice, for whatever reasons, to being told.

When I do talk about my background, I sometimes make a comment or two about growing up in my hometown, and its oft-complicated relationship to the Malaysia that most people see. It hardly factors into my work, because, really, what sort of representation would I be looking for in a media text?

2014-01-02 12.38.10

I’ve met a lot of people who assumed, that just because my passport says Malaysia, that it therefore immediately means I’m Muslim. I was in a Catholic school all my life until university, and on my mother’s side, I’m actually only the 2nd generation born and raised in Borneo. I have a Chinese name, although I hardly ever use it. For all intents and purposes, I’m Chinese. Ethnically.

But see the picture on the left? That was the form I had to fill in when I went to Xi’an, China earlier this year. As far as the Chinese are concerned, I’m as alien as any foreigner entering the Mainland. In 1997 when I went to Beijing, my mum was questioned as to why we had Chinese names when we don’t really have the “rights” to have one.

A few years ago when I was renewing my visa to come back to the UK, I had to go to Kuala Lumpur to hand over my documents. When I got there, and upon taking a look at my passport (which identifies my place of birth and a letter in the passport number which identifies it as Borneon), I was told I needed extra verification from the bank in KL (never mind that we also have international banks in Borneo) because where I’m from, is less civilised than the rest of Peninsular Malaysia. To this day, some conversations with people from Peninsular Malaysia will go something like this:

Are you all headhunters? Do you still live in trees? Do you have an airport? And my personal favourite: Do you know what a traffic jam is?

The rage, as I said, is complicated. To the outside world, Malaysia is a peaceful, multicultural society. I knew and experience that growing up in Borneo, but only within Borneo. I grew up surrounded by a mixture of Catholicism, Chinese and Native (specifically Melanau) cultures. It’s a fact, and it’s also why I always identify as Borneon first. To a lot of people in Peninsular Malaysia, Borneo is (still) wild and full of savagery. And that judgement is still being passed on without much thought within Malaysia. To this day.

It’s disappointing to see, that what transpired on a TV show set in 1860 is still relevant today. That judgements on a people, or a community, is still passed on with blasé attitude based on the way they look, where they’re from or the languages that they speak (or don’t speak). Then again, who’s to know that two characters from mixed backgrounds talking about their cultural identities and their position of in-betweenness in 1860 can bring about this reflection about my own position of in-betweenness? Which also lends itself as to why I mostly don’t really talk much about race and ethnicity.

In actuality, I don’t really know where to start, because when I’m asked to talk about diversity here in the West, within a particular academic/cultural context, I feel like there’s an expectation that I talk about it along certain terms. And that because I mostly identify as “Chinese”, it then has to be along very specific cultural and geographical lines (which also must include some form of reflection on Japanese cultural identity, because god forbid, being Asian/Chinese, I confess to not knowing anything about Japan beyond its food, Studio Ghibli and Hello Kitty).

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